Read Psych:Mind-Altering Murder Online

Authors: William Rabkin

Psych:Mind-Altering Murder (6 page)

The only reason Juliet O'Hara could find for taking the investigation all the way back to high school was the fact that she was found wearing that uniform. But as a clue that seemed like less than a long shot.

Even as she'd sat waiting outside the principal's office, she knew she was wasting her time. And everyone she'd met over the next two hours seemed to prove her right. The principal had only been in the school for two years, and there had been three others since Mandy's day. He was able to pull up her records on the district's computer, but there was nothing there but the transcript of Mandy's good, not great, grades. Mandy's guidance counselor couldn't place the name; she'd been one of a thousand students over the last decade. Even the coach of the cheerleading squad only remembered Mandy as a "nice girl, legs like springs."

But O'Hara had needed to visit the high school, because she didn't have anywhere else to turn. All the evidence seemed to suggest--to insist--that Mandy had taken her own life. There had been no signs of an intruder in the basement apartment, no signs that anyone besides Mandy had been down there in weeks.

What evidence they did turn up kept suggesting the same thing: that Mandy was a deeply troubled woman, who was battling depression for reasons no one seemed to understand. She'd apparently left a lucrative career in sales to move back in with her mother, who was undergoing treatment for some kind of rare cancer. Since then she had barely left the house except to take her mother to the doctor or to run to the supermarket or the pharmacy, and while she told her mother, who was too weak to make it down the stairs, that she was taking care of the garden, she'd clearly been letting it go for a long time. Mrs. Jansen thought Mandy had had a girlfriend over a few times, because she'd heard voices through the floor, but she had no idea who it might have been, and O'Hara was never able to find a trace of her.

As soon as they'd walked into the crime scene Lassiter had made the judgment that Mandy's death was suicide, and O'Hara hadn't found anything to suggest he was wrong.

But she couldn't accept that. Wouldn't accept it. When Lassiter showed her a draft of his report, she refused to sign off on it, and insisted they keep the investigation open just for a little while longer.

But that little while had already stretched past its breaking point and unless O'Hara could come up with something fast, she'd have to put her name on the report that would close the case.

If she could just articulate what she felt was wrong about the case Lassiter would have come over to her side. He would have grumbled, because that was what Lassiter did. But he trusted her instincts and he would have followed her lead.

But she had nothing. No suspects, no motives, no evidence. Just a conviction that Mandy Jansen hadn't killed herself. A conviction for which she couldn't find a single fact.

She was so busy trying to figure out her next move as she crossed the visitors' parking lot that at first she didn't hear the man following her. There were so many kids running to their next class that one set of footsteps didn't make much of an impact on her consciousness. But as she got closer to her car, she could hear the steady slap of leather on asphalt and could tell the footsteps belonged to someone who was hoping to catch her before she reached the sedan.

This could be it,
she thought. Someone who had heard her questions but didn't want to speak up in front of other people. Someone who knew something about Mandy and needed to talk about it, even at great personal risk.

O'Hara slowed down just a little, then turned quickly to see the person who was going to break her case wide-open.

It was her partner.

"Gee, Muffy, didn't mean to startle you," Lassiter said. "I just wanted to know who was taking you to the prom."

"How did you know I was here, Carlton?" she said.

"You had an appointment," Lassiter said. "It was on your scheduler."

"You broke into my computer?" she said, anger rising.

"Let me rephrase that," Lassiter said. "You had an appointment. It was on your scheduler, right under the reminder about the meeting with the Coalition to Help the Homeless."

O'Hara felt her anger melting rapidly into embarrassment. She'd completely forgotten about that. "How bad was it?"

"How bad was it?" Lassiter said. "Let's see--how many times in an hour do you imagine one noble philanthropist could mention that his wife sits on the city council?"

"That clown?" O'Hara said. "About a thousand."

"Sure, he's a clown," Lassiter said. "Only I was the one feeling like I had a red nose and floppy shoes. Because when he wasn't reminding me that he sleeps next to a woman who controls our budget, he was demanding to know what kind of progress we were making solving the hit-and-run of a homeless man on Santa Barbara's busiest street. And what could I tell him? That we hadn't done jack on the case because we were busy trying to prove that an obvious suicide really wasn't?"

"Carlton, I'm sorry I missed the meeting," O'Hara said.

"Don't be sorry. Be right," Lassiter said.

"I don't understand," O'Hara said.

"Find some evidence fast that this cheerleader was actually murdered," Lassiter said. "That way no one can accuse us of ignoring our jobs."

Chapter Eight

he meeting had gone well. Better, in fact, than Gus had expected. He'd spent much of the previous night memorizing facts and figures, studying company history and trying to game a strategy for dealing with a roomful of skeptical executives.

But to start with, the room hadn't been full. There had only been two people sitting at the conference table. One of them was Armitage, of course. He'd been Gus' contact all through this, and he was exactly as Gus had envisioned him during their multiple phone calls. Maybe the suit was a little more expensive than Gus had imagined, but that was only because his imagination had trouble picturing anyone spending that much money on clothes. His hair was white, but the lines of his face looked like the kind that come from lots of outdoor living, not decay. He had a firm handshake and a broad smile that matched the one Gus had always heard in his voice.

The other man was young enough to be Armitage's grandson, and he was dressed like he'd stopped in to cadge a free lunch out of gramps on the way to a Hacky Sack tournament in the marina. His bright pink polo was wrinkled, his chinos stained at the cuffs by grease from a bicycle chain. While Gus did his best to answer Armitage's questions without sounding like he'd stayed up late rehearsing them, the kid barely looked up from his smartphone, except for one moment when he let out a loud "boo-yah!" that seemed to have more to do with whatever was on his screen than Gus' frank confession that he often put his work obligations over his personal life, even to his own detriment.

In another context Gus might have pulled Armitage aside and suggested they give the kid a handful of quarters and send him to the arcade down the street until their meeting was over. Or he might have gotten so annoyed that he grabbed the punk by his tiny ponytail and dragged him out of the conference room.

But this was Armitage's meeting, and if he wanted his grandson here, then his grandson would be here.

After an hour, Armitage gave him another of his broad smiles. "I think that's everything we need to know," he said, getting to his feet and holding out a hand for Gus to shake. "You'll be hearing from us very soon."

"I'm looking forward to it," Gus said. Only then did he turn toward the kid at the end of the table. "Nice to meet you."

The kid didn't exactly look up from his smartphone, but he did raise a hand to give him half a wave.

As Gus rode back down in the walnut-paneled elevator, he tried to figure out what he'd do next. If the meeting had been a failure, of course, he wouldn't need to make a decision. He'd fly back to Burbank, sweat the traffic up the 101, and in the morning he'd pick up Shawn and accompany him to Darksyde City.

But if he'd read things correctly Gus was about to be facing a serious decision. And this wouldn't be like most of his decisions, which he usually made, unmade, and remade at least a dozen times before he committed to a certain path, and then a dozen more afterward. This one would be final.

The elevator dinged and the doors slid open, letting Gus out into a small lobby of granite walls and marble floors. He slipped the visitor's pass out of his shirt pocket and slid it across the security guard's console, then clickclacked his way across the stone floor to the metal and glass door.

It was amazing what a couple tons of granite can protect you from. Inside the lobby you'd never know this building sat at one of the busiest corners in San Francisco, with thousands of screeching brakes and blaring horns going past every hour. Inside, life seemed sane and calm and peaceful. If only Gus could stay right here for a few hours to think things through. Removed from the noise and bustle and confusion of life, he could surely come to the right decision. If the security guard hadn't started to eye him suspiciously and finger the gun at his waist, Gus might have slid down to the floor and stayed there until he'd made up his mind.

Instead he pushed the door open and let the sounds of the traffic wash over him along with the cool air that was being pushed into the city by the oncoming layer of fog.

Even out in the noise it isn't bad,
Gus thought. Maybe it wasn't the isolation of the stone lobby that had made him feel so calm and so free. It was simply being away from home.

Gus glanced at his watch. His flight didn't leave for another four hours. Normally he'd already be worried about missing the plane and would spend the next half hour debating whether he should take BART or spring for a taxi. But right now he didn't feel any pressure to get to the airport. He didn't want to go home. He had a strange feeling that whatever decision he made, it would be easier to reach here.

So Gus would stay for a few hours. He'd stroll through the financial district, maybe toddle down toward the waterfront, where he could watch the ferries come and go. Or he could head over to Chinatown and atone for his lunch by ordering some real Chinese food. Maybe he'd just walk. Walk and think. And if he wasn't done thinking by eight o'clock, he could find a cheap hotel and postpone his return until the morning. Worst-case scenario was he'd get bad news from Armitage after he'd rescheduled his flight and be stuck here for no reason.

Now that the thought of staying overnight had occurred to him, Gus started to like it more and more. He might as well just commit now. He'd call United and change his reservation, then look around for a hotel.

Gus pulled out his cell phone and powered it up--he had, of course, switched it off for the meeting. It went through its usual delaying tactics, showing logo screen after logo screen. Then it told him it was searching for service. Finally a series of four bars appeared at the top of the display. Gus started to dial when the phone rang. It was Shawn.

"Hey, Shawn," Gus said as casually as he could. "Good timing. We've got a short break in the sales conference."

"Good, because I need some advice," Shawn said.

Gus regarded the phone suspiciously. In all the years they'd been first friends, then colleagues, Shawn had never actually asked Gus for advice. Even on those occasions when he knew he needed it, Shawn always found a way to phrase the request so that it sounded like he was doing Gus a great favor.

"About what?" Gus said.

"Remember that guy you killed?" Shawn said. "The one with the Cayenne?"

"You mean the character I killed in the computer game we were playing," Gus said. He didn't know for sure that the government had computers that sifted all cell calls for certain phrases, but if they did "remember that guy you killed" was probably one that sent up a lot of flags.

"That's him," Shawn said. "He was a hit man who was working for Morton, right?"

"He was a fictional hit man whose role in the game was as a soldier for the fictional mobster known as Morton, right," Gus said.

"Let's say I've been following this guy," Shawn said.

Gus felt a flare of irritation. He was on the cusp of making a life-changing decision, and Shawn wanted advice on a move in a computer game. "Why?" Gus said. "He's dead, at least in the fictional scenario we've been discussing in this entire conversation. Because as you pointed out, when I was playing the game, I killed him. In the game."

"Let's say I had to restart the game," Shawn said.

"You had to restart the game?" Gus was doubly glad he'd decided to stay in San Francisco now. He had no desire to relive the terrible events at the petting zoo. The
terrible events at the petting zoo, he corrected himself, although he doubted that any government agency actually had the technology to pick up stray thoughts.

"Let's say," Shawn said.

"Okay, you've been following Cayenne," Gus said. "So?"

"Let's say I think he's going to lead me to Morton, thus shortcutting me through at least two levels of play," Shawn said.

"Congratulations," Gus said. If he'd thought of that the last time he'd been in the game, it would have saved him from the encounter with the liquor store owner.

"Only when I followed him, he didn't lead me to Morton," Shawn said. "Instead he took me to a part of the city we hadn't seen before. He went to an office building and disappeared inside."

"And?" Gus said, wishing he could finish this call so he could reschedule his flight.

"Let's say I was able to trace the ownership of the building," Shawn said.

"How?" Gus said.

"It's a game," Shawn said. "There are clues built in."

"Okay, fine," Gus said. "So who owns the building?"

"Flint Powers," Shawn said.

Gus tried to remember why that name sounded familiar, at the same time trying to understand why he should care what was happening inside some dumb game. "He's the other mob's boss, right?" Gus said. "Morton's only rival?"

"That's right," Shawn said. "What do you think that means?"

"I assume Cayenne didn't kill Powers," Gus said. "Because you probably would have told me. So I've got to assume the only reason he's going there is because he's actually working for the guy."

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